Considering Federal Prison Growth and Its Costs

Earlier this week, The Urban Institute issued a new report, The Growth & Increasing Cost of the Federal Prison System: Drivers and Potential Solutions, which, in terms of the Bureau of Prisons’ unrelenting growth, provides:

BOP has experienced an almost tenfold increase in its population since 1980. In FY 2011, the BOP population increased by 7,541 inmates, and will increase by an estimated 11,500 by the end of FY 2013.


Overall, BOP is operating at 39 percent above its rated capacity, with 55 percent crowding at high-security facilities and 51 percent at medium-security facilities. Since FY 2000, the inmate-to-staff ratio has increased from about 4:1 to a projected 5:1 in FY 2013. This degree of crowding threatens the safety of both inmates and correctional officers, and it undermines the ability to provide effective programming.
In terms of cost, the report notes:
Annual costs per inmate are $21,006 for minimum security, $25,378 for low security, $26,247 for medium security, and $33,930 for high security. Average annual costs per inmate housed in community corrections (residential reentry centers and home confinement) for BOP are $25,838. By contrast, the annual cost of supervision by probation officers in the community is about $3,433 per offender.[…]

The President’s FY 2013 budget request for BOP totals $6.9 billion, reflecting an increase of $278 million (4.2 percent) from the FY 2012 enacted budget.[…] The BOP budget for FY 2013 accounts for over 25 percent of the DOJ budget.[…] [I]f present trends continue, the share of the DOJ budget consumed by BOP will grow even further, approaching 30 percent in 2020.


In terms of what is driving the BOP’s unending growth, the report observes:


[D]rug offenders make up about half of the end-of-year population. The length of sentences – particularly for drug offenders – is an important determinant of the stock population and driver of population growth.


In short, this cogent report summarizes what is widely known about problems that continue to plague the federal criminal justice system and offers useful solutions to correct them. The question is whether and when those in Washington will act.

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